Therapist's inventions part hobby, part job
|Video: Physical therapist demonstrates her invention, the wrist widget|
By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Curtis Lum
Wendy Medeiros-Howard has a thriving physical therapy business, but the Honolulu resident also believes she has a future as an inventor and already has a patent pending on a splint to treat wrist injuries.
Medeiros-Howard has many other ideas swirling in her head and dreams of eventually living off the income from her inventions. For now, though, the 37-year-old single mother of two will keep her day job as head of Howard Therapy.
"This is just a hobby, a very, very fun hobby," she said of her interest in inventions.
But her hobby has produced a wrist splint designed for people with an injury that is difficult to treat. Triangular fibrocartilage complex, or TFCC, causes pain and weakness in the wrist and hand and is common among athletes, Medeiros-Howard said.
After opening her practice here in 2000, Medeiros-Howard said she noticed an increase in the number of patients being referred to her with TFCC. She said she was surprised to learn that there wasn't a apparatus on the market to deal with TFCC.
"I just treat hand injuries. I don't do anything else," she said. "When I got here and got a bunch of patients that had this problem I started the wheels turning on a solution to this injury. For the past three years I've been doing sewing and manufacturing and creating this splint."
The result is the Wrist Widget, a name that her 9-year-old son came up with. Medeiros-Howard said the splint works by "squeezing" the two wrist bones together with just enough force without affecting blood flow. She said it "puts the ligament on slack, which allows it to heal."
In January 2005, Medeiros-Howard applied for a patent she hopes to get by September.
"I've gone through a thousand different variations, different materials, different stitches, all kinds of different things and I finally came up with one that works," she said.
The patent process was very involved, requiring pages of documents, a study of more than 100 people who have used the splint, a patent attorney, and a lot of trial and error.
"Through the whole process there were six to eight months where that's all I did and I loved doing it," she said.
Initially, Medeiros-Howard sewed the splints herself, but has since hired a seamstress to do the work. She said she's sold about 2,000 splints so far and her seamstress, Cam Heung, can produce about 80 a day.
Medeiros-Howard said she realizes she will eventually have to expand production should the splint take off. Sales are primarily made to patients who have been referred to her by a doctor, and on the Internet.
"I've looked at going out of the state to Hong Kong and to the Mainland for manufacturing, but I have a 'keep-it-local' mentality," she said. "They would have to really show me a good quality product at a really, really good price to beat what I have here, and I haven't seen that yet."
Taylor Rock, a University of Hawai'i graduate student, hurt his wrist surfing last fall. The pain got so bad he finally saw a sports medicine doctor, who referred him to Medeiros-Howard.
"She put me through some tests. She grabbed my wrist a couple of times, and she put the widget on and I instantly felt relief and better. It was amazing," Rock said.
Rock, whose thesis is on community based economic development, said he hopes Medeiros-Howard is successful with her invention.
"It would be perfect to create jobs and have a product produced right here that you can export," he said.
Medeiros-Howard was born in Honolulu and got a degree in occupational therapy from San Jose State University. She transferred to Stanford University, where she trained at its hand program for five years.
After opening a practice in California, Medeiros-Howard moved back to Hawai'i with her two young children seven years ago to be closer to her family.
She said she hopes her splint and other innovations will succeed, allowing her to spend more time with her children.
"I have all kinds of other ideas for the medical world that I hope to spend my time on. It works really well for raising children, and that is what motivates me every day. Being home with my kids in the afternoon and being flexible when they need stuff is what has driven all of this," she said.
Reach Curtis Lum at firstname.lastname@example.org.